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Toyota vows first plug-in hybrid car to be built by 2010

A Toyota hybrid vehicle on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week. Toyota says it is developing plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries. A Toyota hybrid vehicle on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week. Toyota says it is developing plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries. (CARLOS OSORIO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Micheline Maynard
New York Times News Service / January 14, 2008

DETROIT - Toyota Motor Corp., which leads the world's automakers in sales of hybrid-electric vehicles, said last night that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010.

The move puts Toyota in direct competition with General Motors, which has announced plans to sell its own plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, sometime around 2010.

Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, outlined the company's plans at the Detroit auto show as part of a series of environmental steps. Watanabe said Toyota, best known for its Prius hybrid car, would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power Toyota models.

Watanabe said the lithium-ion fleet would be made available first to Toyota's commercial customers around the world, such as government agencies and corporations, including some in the United States. He did not say when they would be available to consumers.

The Volt also is set to run on lithium-ion batteries, which are more expensive than the batteries currently used by Toyota, but which can potentially power the vehicle for a longer time.

Additionally, Toyota said it planned to develop a new hybrid-electric car specifically for its Lexus division that is not based on an existing model, as well as another new hybrid for the Toyota brand. It said it would unveil both at the Detroit show next year.

Watanabe also said Toyota planned to offer diesel engines for its Tundra pickup truck and the Sequoia sport utility vehicle "in the near future," but was not more specific.

Some environmental groups have pushed for plug-in hybrids, called PHEVs, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as a way to save on gasoline, thus curbing emissions. The easiest way for car companies to reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions is to improve vehicle fuel economy.

But some experts say plug-ins may not be the ultimate answer to cutting pollution, if the electricity used to charge them comes from coal-fired power plants.

That is also a concern to Toyota, which has asked researchers to determine not only whether consumers would be willing to pay for a plug-in, but also the effect it would have on the environment, James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales, said in an interview yesterday.

GM, Toyota, and Ford Motor, the world's three biggest car companies, all are developing plug-in hybrid vehicles. Along with the Volt, GM has said it plans to produce a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue hybrid.

Ford has not yet given details of its plug-in hybrid, which it first discussed in 2006.

Toyota's planned plug-in hybrid - a version of the Prius, and not the vehicle Toyota announced it would build - differs from the Prius in four ways. It has two nickel-metal hydride batteries under the floor of its trunk, instead of the conventional Prius's single battery.

Unlike the Prius, which has a single fuel-filler door on the left side of the car, the plug-in model has another door on the right side that opens to reveal an outlet for the electrical charger. One end of the charger looks like a small fuel nozzle; the other end is a conventional three-pronged plug.

Each charge, which takes about four hours, uses the equivalent of 2.7 kilowatt hours of electricity, said Jaycie Chitwood, a senior strategic planner in Toyota's advanced technologies group.

Inside the car, there is a button with the letters "EV" inside an outline of a car. If the driver pushes the button, the car reverts to electric vehicle mode, meaning the Prius is powered completely by its two batteries.

In electric mode, the Prius gets 99.9 miles a gallon, according to a gauge on a screen in the middle of the dashboard. But the plug-in hybrid's two batteries hold enough power for only seven miles, said Saul Ibarra, a product specialist with Toyota who worked on developing the Prius.

By contrast, GM says that the Volt will be able to hold a charge equal to 40 miles, after a six-hour charge.

Still, the electric mode of the Toyota plug-in is enough to start the car and run it until the engine reaches the point where it needs to tap the gasoline engine. The plug-in Prius can stay in electric mode until 62 miles per hour, versus around 30 miles per hour for the conventional Prius, Ibarra said.

Despite its decision to step up its plug-in hybrid development, Toyota is not sure how much more consumers will want to pay for it, Lentz said. The Prius starts at $21,100.

Some after-market companies are charging nearly that much to convert Prius models into plug-ins, he said.

It is more likely that Toyota would offer plug-in technology as an option on the Prius, at least in the short term, rather than switch all of its hybrids to plug-in models.

Ultimately, Toyota must determine "do people want to plug in their car?" Chitwood said.

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